The Devil in the Flesh
By Raymond Radiguet
Translation & Afterword by Christopher Moncrieff
Pushkin Press, 2010
This is a fresh and vibrant translation of a novel that was first published in 1923, the year of the author’s death.
Radiguet was just 20 when he died and he is supposed to have written The Devil in the Flesh some two to four years before, between 1919 and 1921.
Set during the Great War, the novel tells of an affair between a teenage boy and a married woman whose husband Jacques, a decent sort, is away at the front, risking life and limb for the French Republic. The subject matter apparently caused outrage and anger on first publication, and one can see why it would. Here is a citizen doing his patriotic duty, while all the while his wife is carrying on with a lad perhaps two-thirds his age. It is just not on.
What I’ve always loved about the novel (I’d read it a couple of times previously in the A.M. Sheridan Smith translation) is the voice of the lad, which is naïve and candid yet also amoral and callous. There’s something of the cynicism of Laclos and La Rochefoucauld about him, something of the innocence and alienation of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character in The 400 Blows. Indeed, Claude Autant-Lara’s 1947 film of Radiguet’s novel may well have influenced Truffaut. Most of all, the lad is clear-sighted: scathing of hypocrisy in others, aware of it (and of cowardice) in himself.
At one juncture his hackles are mightily raised:
I was offended that in a letter breaking off our relationship, Marthe hadn’t mentioned suicide. (132)
And indeed, it is almost as though he were running through the gamut of emotions that a love affair evokes. But dispassionately, in the main: an anatomy of love.
One thing that struck me on this rereading was the extent to which it was a war novel, albeit an unusual one. Jacques’ absence is due to the war and there’s an inkling that the state of being at war creates a kind of moral hazard within the homeland of France, allowing an illicit affair (and much other weirdness, such as a maid’s suicide) to prosper. Just an inkling, mind. There’s also the irony (one of many) that the lovers don’t really want the war to end.
His life was brief, but Radiguet’s achievements were immense. With The Devil in the Flesh he created an extraordinary novel, complex and cruel, excoriating of self and society. And reading the novel as a portrait of alienated adolescence, only Chandler Brossard’s brilliant The Bold Saboteurs comes close.
Some further details of The Devil in the Flesh can be read here.